I’ll try to keep this short and mostly thoughtful. I field quite a few emails which vary from gear (okay mostly gear) to blogging, to business and legal inquiries regarding photography. I may not be the best resource for many of these inquiries, but I can offer my opinion on various matters. I’ve done quite a bit with the gear side of things, so I’m gonna try my hand at some new stuff here. With the new year, I’ve shunned traditional resolutions and tried rather to turn entirely inward in my own personal assessment of what makes me happy, or more importantly, what I can control that makes me and those I love comfortable, happy and healthy. Unless you’re some type of magical farmer/hippy/yeti hybrid that is entirely capable of living off the land and bartering your body hair, somehow legally in some utopian parallel shadow universe, we will need income to survive. Clothing, a roof, food, you know, the basic needs. We (I assume my readers) all love photography, so why not try our hand at combining a love and a necessity by making money as a professional photographer?
What is a profesional? I may be against the grain here, but I don’t think being a professional photographer is related to talent in the artistic sense really at all. Sure it doesn’t hurt, but a professional, any successful professional is good, and perhaps more importantly efficient at what they do and how they do it. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating. I know successful, full time pros whose work is less than inspiring. Good enough, and certainly efficient, but not what I’d consider amazing. Conversely, I know photographers who’ve never made a cent from their art but create imagery that blows my mind. Artistic talent has very little to do with success in many cases. Being a professional means it is your profession. You make your living, or part of your living at least, from said profession. To be a professional, you need to know how to apply business acumen to a creative skill and this is trickier than it may seem.
Unless you’re shooting for a studio, publication, another photographer or the like as a hired gun, this means you have to not only be a photographer, but an entire business as well. This is hard, and the vast bulk of the work.
I have seen many shooters fall prey to the sweet siren song at the possibility of making a living doing something they love. Who am I to contradict that? Nobody, in fact I was one of those souls, called by the idea of bliss and enjoyable employment, but I can hopefully provide a little insight into what is actually required, and hopefully cause enough pause to inflict a bit of introspection so that a particular photographer making this decision will really look at what is involved in the choice to do so.
Full disclosure, I am a semi-professional photographer. This means I make a portion of my living through photography. Some people pay me to point my camera at stuff, and capture images of said stuff. While I have flirted with the idea of going all out with this as a full time profession, I have pulled back almost entirely over the last couple years.
Why? Well, for me it is firstly because I want photography to remain to me, what it has always been for me. An artistic release. Secondly, there is a lot riding on my income by way of my family and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared of being incapable of successfully building and running a new business. Between the fear of losing my passion for photography and the fear of losing my ability to provide for my family, the risks were both too great, and the prospects too stressful for me to choose to go all out.
I love photography. I love getting to play with different gear, and I love working on projects with clients, most of the time. It is an ultra competitive market with more talent then there has ever been before. Digital photography has opened the market up to so many shooters and artists that perhaps may never have taken photography as seriously, much like me. I loved, and still love shooting film, but I became a far better photographer when I was able to immediately see the results on a screen on the back of the camera, and I owe my renaissance with photography purely to the digital age. I could adjust my technique in real time and take much of the guess work out of it. It turned from a hobby into an obsession, and from an obsession into a desire to make a living. Over the last 10 or so years, that desire has come full circle and I’ve found a great balance through various trials, successes and failures.
See, the business side of any artistic profession is where the heaviness comes into play. Taxes, insurance (for gear, liability, health, et al), overhead, investment, depreciation, marketing, budget, bills, post production, delivery, social media, web upkeep and management… the list goes on. These are the things that weren’t necessarily evident when that obsessive passionate opiate was fogging up my brain.
If starting a business, more than likely you will be wearing all hats yourself. Aside from being a photographer, you need to be a marketing strategist, accountant, retoucher, office manager, receptionist, web developer (or at least a web manager) not to mention have the time and ability to find, accumulate, manage and retain clients. This is a lot of work. The goal should certainly be to grow a business so that you can hire someone (or multiple someones) to execute many of the operational tasks in running a business, but this then requires a substantial and consistent influx of income to pay for salary, benefits, workers comp, further labor taxes, etc.
See, before I decided to wade into the money making waters, I was free to shoot anything I wanted, with whomever, whenever and wherever I wanted. Yeah, that’s me shooting an empty whisky glass, so what, that’s what I wanted to shoot. This is not to say that I couldn’t do this now, or even if working as a photographer full time, but I now have a young family, and also no, I wouldn’t have the time, nor energy to even want to most likely.
(Mrs. Squeeze, close your ears, look away!)
Years ago, I was dating a licensed massage therapist. Awesome right? I thought that I’d hit the jackpot. I have many a recurring injury from various sports and activities I’ve participated in over my years and this was just the ticket! Guess what. Whenever we were around each other, she was tired of giving massages. She went into it wanting to be a healer, and was passionate about it through the years of school and starting up her own practice. She came out the other side as many of us do after a long day of work, tired and not wanting anything to do with massage, the paperwork, dealing with insurance companies or accounting, her wrists and hands were tired, blah blah blah. She ultimately stopped massaging and started working various odd jobs, never to massage again! Well, I’m sure she has since as this was years and years ago, but I never so much as received one solitary shoulder rub. Lame.
While this is by no means a rule, it is an example of the burnout that can happen, and if running a business, any business, you’ll be subject to some of the less than fun things that come along with it.
I saw this burnout working its way into my photography and it started to affect my desire to shoot for myself. While I in no way mean to say that it happens to everyone, it should at least be prepared for as a possibility.
Okay, let’s take an upper to counter that downer. We all have to work right? Unless you’re an amazingly talented gold digger, or were lucky enough to be born with a last name like Trump or Rothschild, we will have to make ends meet on our own. There are worse ways to have to do that than by starting off doing something you love doing certainly, and there are no greater motivators than passion and desperation. Here’s a little piece of advice which may be obvious, but tricky to really grasp in our instant, immediate and entitled society. It doesn’t have to happen overnight.
If you enjoy photography, keep on enjoying photography while doing research into what you may want to do with it. Use it as a guideline to learn and grow into what you feel you’ll need to do to be successful. Research other successful photographers. Research your market. Look to gain insight by becoming a second shooter, or even a studio slave. Watch successful photographers be successful. Ask questions, offer to help, offer to work, offer to trade and constantly be observing, learning and ingesting that which can be gleaned from others and the collective experience. There is an amazing amount of information available FOR FREE on line. If you have a question about anything photography related, ask Google, or check YouTube. It’s amazing what we have available at our fingertips.
Many may point to school, and boy do I wish I could have afforded to go to art school. Sure, I took some photography classes at my Liberal Arts College. Yes it was fun to reunite with the darkroom and inhale chemicals for a quarter here and a quarter there, but I struggled finding an income and paying off my debt after coming out with a four year degree in business and international economics… School can be great. If you can afford it, awesome. For me, with the modern photographic reality, I see art school as a luxury. Please, no offense to those of us actually in art school right now. There is a lot of good that can come out of it, namely in networking and structure. For the rest of us, there is a lot of information available, and nothing stopping you from motivating yourself to push into new creative space. If you want structure, try a local community college or art collective that may be offering classes. Again, find a good, working professional to show you the ropes, and this, in my opinion, is going to give you a more direct line into the successful, working world of photography than any classroom will. If you look at it as saving you tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt, a free internship might not be the worst way to learn the ropes… If you’re going to pay for education, get educated in business. While not as vogue a subject, the knowledge you can get from studying business applies to almost everything.
Instinct is what makes a photographer good, so learn to hone your instinct. Practice and creative execution through experience are what make a good photographer great, but that said, there is no guarantee that a great photographer will be a great business person.
I would just be cautious and really explore the work involved in starting, running and maintaining a business. It’s hard, and honestly, at my height I’d say that with a photography business, probably 80% if not more of my working time was spent not photographing anything, but rather processing, invoicing, getting all paperwork, releases and contracts in order all while trying to keep track of all the legal hullabaloo that goes along with it, in other words at a desk, in my office. I still do that, but it has been pared down and luckily, I only work on projects that I want to now, with folks that I love working with. For me, it’s a wonderful win/win situation and provides just enough work to keep me on my toes, but not so much that I’m worn out, not wanting to shoot for myself. This also enables me to collaborate with other creatives that I work with to help build mutually beneficial and inspiring multi-personal projects (see the somewhat recent ELK collaborative shoot here as an example). All this and I still have time to be a father and husband, which is pretty important as well.
My suggestion? Shoot because you love to shoot. Get to be the best shooter you can, for you. If you need projects, ask friends and family, or network with other creatives who may need some photographic help in exchange for providing material to shoot (think makeup artists, hairstylists, jewelry makers, painters, gardeners, small business owners, etc). Don’t mistake this for working for free. If you’re friend runs their own hair salon, it’s different to trade them work than it would be shooting images for a printed ad campaign in exchange for a free haircut at Supercuts. Big businesses have budgets, or should. Small mom and pops, friends and family members can be a great way to use the desire to shoot for free or trade while gaining experience. Find a local non profit that may need photographic services. Donate your time and skill in exchange for a tax write off. The other way to go at this is to coordinate a shoot where everyone donates their expertise in exchange for yours. You want to build your portfolio? Perhaps you want to shoot portraits? Find that friend that does hair, find the friend who owns a cool car, find that friend who is a budding satorialist and perhaps a good looking friend to model to get everyone in on it. Now, it’s not just your portfolio that you’re boosting, but everyone involved and everyone comes out of it with something.
Photography can be a remarkable bartering tool. I have traded my photographic services for amazing meals, booze, overnight getaways, tattoos, farm fresh produce and even once a dress for my wife (which she never ended up going to get). Look to apprentice, second shoot or even spend time setting up or breaking down gear in a studio. As opposed to offering your services for free, may I suggest approaching an experienced, working photographer and offering your labor in exchange for tutelage, gain experience and insight so that you may make a name for yourself after properly gaining experience, as opposed to hurting your name by being underprepared for a stressful job with high expectations. What is it that they say about a first impression…? I’m not saying you shouldn’t try jumping in with both feet, just make sure you know what it is you’re jumping into.
If money comes into it, so too will other mandatory tasks. If you are going to give it a go, or feel you need to make some money to justify your gear acquisition syndrome, do your due diligence. Research the proper legal releases you’ll need, the liability, insurance costs and delivery methods. Find a good accountant to help with your annual taxes. The couple hundred dollars it costs is nothing compared to what you will gain in knowledge and returns regarding how to properly write off expenses, incorporate depreciation and file overall. Nothing will kill a business faster than an uncovered derrière, and nothing will piss off a full time photographer than sharking jobs by undercutting the going rates, so know your market, and know your worth. If you’re good at what you do, know how much you should be charging to do it, otherwise you’re cheapening the craft and your hard earned expertise.
In theory, it’s easy to justify price increases as more experience and better output deem higher rates as you grow as a working photographer, but it can be much more difficult to hold onto clients who have budgeted a certain amount for particular shoots when they know what you’ve charged in the past. Not that you won’t shoot for that client again once you start to increase your rates, but I’ve seen many start to shop around because there are plenty of other shooters out there willing to undercut, even shoot for free “for experience.”
So, my advice is to skip that part, gain experience by way of understudying and job shadowing while shooting for yourself, and let the end result and quality of your work blow your clients away which will justify your rates. It can be detrimental to ask your clients to allow you to grow your skills while they’re paying you to do so… Just my two cents.
Also, no offense intended here, but if you need to ask which lens to use, you’re probably not ready to be a wedding photographer. Focus on the educational side of photography for a little while and understand a bit about the mathematics involved in the art of photography before jumping into that crazy fire. Just sayin’
Final piece of advice, don’t listen to me, but take what I’ve said into consideration as you start to research if and how to incorporate income into your passion. With every unique situation comes a unique set of circumstances and variables, and while some truths may be universal, how these truths affect your circumstances may not be.
Thanks as always for the read everyone. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments so that we can continue this conversation and glean insight. Hit me up on Facebook, Twitter or Flickr and let’s see where this wild journey can take us.
All the best and happy shooting,